Concerns over quality continue to plague OPM's background investigations

Wednesday - 5/14/2014, 2:00am EDT

Ten years ago, the federal government's handling of security clearances was in full crisis mode.

In the first few years after 9/11, clearance seekers waited, on average, more than a year to have their background investigations completed because of longstanding bottlenecks in the small Defense Department agency responsible for conducting them.

As outrage boiled over on Capitol Hill, Congress and the White House decided to consolidate the management of security-clearance investigations under one agency's roof: the Office of Personnel Management.

Since then, OPM has made significant progress fast-tracking the process for first- time clearance seekers. But potential missed red flags in the backgrounds of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis have cast doubt on the quality of the background checks performed by OPM and its contractors.

"It's clear now, I think, that the efficiencies and speed were kind of at the cost of the quality of investigations," said Evan Lesser, co-founder and managing director of ClearanceJobs.com, an online clearinghouse for news and information about the security clearance industry.

That's an opinion shared by some Pentagon insiders. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last fall asked an outside panel of experts to examine the government's handling of security clearances in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting. The panel's report, published in March, faulted OPM investigators who "reduce investigations to checklists and provide incomplete investigations" and even recommended DoD be given back the authority to conduct its background investigations.

In part three of the special report, Questioning Clearances, Federal News Radio examines OPM's efforts to improve and measure the quality of investigations and why some experts think it's time for DoD to be put back in the driver's seat.

OPM speeds up process

One thing even the staunchest critics of OPM can agree on is that since the agency took control of DoD's investigations, it has made tremendous progress speeding up the once-sluggish process. Currently, OPM completes background investigations for initial clearances in an average of about 36 days, well within the timelines mandated by Congress in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

(Source: OPM)

At the time, a significant backlog of investigations had piled up, thanks to the military buildup in Iraq and Afghanistan and a surge in security hiring after 9/11. The Defense Security Service, the small agency tasked with conducting investigations of DoD personnel and contractors, was struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing demand.

The 2004 law mandated new checks be completed in 40 days, plus time for the requesting agency to adjudicate the case. The Bush administration later decided to shift the authority for conducting DoD's background checks from DSS to OPM, putting the federal government's human-resources agency in charge of about 95 percent of all investigations.

But some observers lament the fact that concerns over the timeliness of investigations dominated those earlier reform efforts.

"OPM was strutting their stuff for Congress, saying, 'We can do it quicker and faster,' and that's all that they were focused on. It wasn't, 'We can do it better,'" said Carolyn Martin, a former DSS investigator who's currently the president of the American Federal Contract Investigators Association.

Martin's group published a white paper in 2006 outlining the group's objections to OPM's handling of investigations, among them, a concern about rushing cases to meet new timelines. "I think that we all agree that you can't put a price tag on national security," she said. "You also can't put a clock on it."

In an interview with Federal News Radio, Merton Miller, director of OPM's Federal Investigative Services, said he doesn't think congressionally mandated timelines have affected the quality of investigations because the agency has more than enough staffing power to handle incoming requests.

"One of the things that we've done to ensure that timeliness was not a driving factor on the quality of the investigations was making sure we had expanded investigative capacity," he said.

About half of OPM's background investigations are conducted by contractors. The agency's largest contractor, U.S. Investigations Service, or USIS, was created in 1996 when OPM spun off and privatized its investigations office in 1996 as part of the Clinton administration's "Reinventing Government" initiative. The company is now being sued by the Justice Department for allegedly cutting corners in thousands of investigations over a four-year period beginning in 2008.

OPM, which also has contracts with CACI and KeyPoint Government Solutions to conduct background investigations, has staffed up internally.

"So, time is not the issue at all relative to quality," Miller said.

Questions of quality persist

But while OPM has won plaudits for clearing the backlog and speeding up the process, questions about the quality of investigations continue to plague the agency.

Here's how the process is supposed to work: Investigators probe the clearance seeker's background, conducting interviews and checking records. OPM conducts a quality review to make sure the case is complete. Then, agency adjudicators use investigators' reports, in part, to determine whether to approve a clearance.

But currently, there are no national quality-assessment standards used by both investigators and agency adjudicators, alike, to measure the quality of a particular investigation.

The lack of standards means, in practice, that investigations can be missing key elements and still be classified by OPM as meeting investigative standards.

It's also caused disconnect in the way OPM and its largest customer, DoD, view the quality and completeness of investigations.

For example:

  • OPM says 99.83 percent of its investigations meet federal standards and are "quality complete" and meeting investigative standards, according to its most recent annual performance report.

  • But the Pentagon says at least 31 percent of OPM investigations received by DoD adjudicators contain deficiencies, according to a March 2014 report on security-clearance reform. DoD adjudicators also say as much as 70 to 80 percent of all investigative files provided by OPM are missing at least some information, according to information provided to Congress.

OPM is currently working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as part of a quality-assessment working group to establish governmentwide standards.

But until then, the quality of a particular investigation lies largely "in the eyes of the beholder," OPM's Miller said. "The investigator says, 'Yes, it's complete. It answers all the interrogatories,' where the adjudicators said, 'Boy, I'd really like more information.'"

Miller said some of the disagreement between DoD and OPM over the completeness of investigations stems from the fact that DoD adjudicators want additional information, not because OPM has provided incomplete files.

In fact, he said, DoD only returns about 1 percent of investigations for OPM to rework.

"The reality is, if a case is not complete — and what I mean by that is investigatively sufficient, it doesn't meet the federal investigative standards — the agency has all reason to return that product to be re-accomplished," Miller said. "And I don't understand why an agency wouldn't do that."

GAO: OPM's quality measures aren't up to par

But auditors from the Government Accountability Office said OPM lacks metrics or tools that act as an accurate snapshot of the quality of an investigation before it's sent to agency adjudicators.

The problem, according to GAO, is that OPM's current quality metrics are largely based on after-the-fact, follow-up measures. These include calls from agency adjudicators to an OPM hotline to report issues or the number of investigative reports that adjudicators return to OPM.

"We've long said that using the number of or the percentage of OPM investigative files returned by adjudicators is not a valid tool, because it is voluntary," said Brenda Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at GAO.

In fact, if adjudicators discover a missing element on an investigation, some large agencies, such as DHS and DoD will often attempt to resolve the case without bringing OPM back into the picture, she said .

"Some will tell you ... it's easier to just go back and do it themselves, make the contact and get the missing information rather than interact with OPM," she said.

GAO has been supportive of OPM's efforts to improve the timeliness of investigations. In part because of progress on that front, GAO removed security clearances from its "High Risk List" in 2011. But GAO auditors say OPM needs to get a better handle on measuring quality.

Several years ago, OPM and its largest customer, DoD, were working on a tool to do just that.

DoD had developed a tool it called the Rapid Assessment of Incomplete Security Investigations, or RAISE, which would monitor incoming reports from OPM and note any deficiencies or missing information. That data would then be automatically transmitted to OPM.

The effort made it to the pilot-testing stage after senior administration officials including the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, the director of OPM and representatives from DoD and the intelligence community signed off on using the tool in a letter to Congress in 2010.

"But it just, for whatever reason, fell apart," Farrell said. "So they had a vehicle underway, and it just stopped, fell apart, however you want to characterize it."

In response to a congressional inquiry last summer, Miller said the tool was scrapped because DoD and OPM systems were unable to "speak" to each other, and DoD didn't have the resources to build two-way communication between the two agencies.

Should DoD retake control of the process?

But it may not just be the computer systems that have trouble "speaking" to each other.

"This disagreement over quality is indicative of a critical problem: the failure of DoD and OPM to communicate," the external Pentagon report commissioned by Hagel concluded. "There is a lack of a regular dialogue and clear expectations between OPM and DoD perpetuated by mutual animosity and misunderstanding."

Currently, OPM, DoD and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — all co-chairs of a quality-assessment working group — have gone back to the drawing board on coming up with better defined quality standards as well as deploying a new quality tool.

But some experts are calling for more far-reaching remedies. The external DoD report "strongly" recommended that DoD be given back the authority for conducting not only its own background investigations but also those of all other federal agencies.

Lawmakers have also tasked DoD's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office with examining the cost, quality and timeliness of background investigations conducted by OPM and comparing it with how it would scope out if DoD took the reins. That report is expected to be released in the coming months.

OPM has generally opposed suggestions to allow other agencies to conduct their own investigations.

In response to questions from members of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee last summer, Miller said doing so would be inefficient and potentially redundant because agencies would "have to reinvent the wheel," in setting up their own capabilities.

OPM is also concerned another overhaul of the security-clearance investigation process could upend the progress that's already been made

"Requiring or permitting federal agencies to stand up their own programs due to misperceptions regarding the true costs and needs of the nation's vital vetting processes would be a giant step backward," Miller said in response to committee queries.

In the final part of Questioning Clearances, coming next week, Federal News Radio examines the federal government's efforts to reform the security- clearance process, including the plan for "continuous evaluation" of clearance- holders. The government says thanks to new technology, it will be able to keep better tabs on cleared personnel on a near, real-time basis. But can such a plan be implemented successfully any time soon?


More from the series, Questioning Clearances:

Part 1: Fraud case against USIS moved to DC court

Part 2: OPM's crackdown on background check fraud leads to jail time -- for some